Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Spirit of Backpacking

The folks crossing this Sierra stream--Ron, Karin, Tina and Cynthia--are at this point already halfway to their goal: the 14,495' summit of the formidable Mt. Whitney. By the time they reach it, they'll have hiked 170 miles of the John Muir Trail over a period of 17 days. And all their survival gear on this arduous trek must be carried on their backs.

Yet in the Sierras, where a violent thunderstorm or a sudden freeze or a misplaced boot on a slippery trail can injure or kill the unwary hiker, survival gear is everything. Thus, this team of family members and one good friend spent a year planning what would go into their 35-45 pound packs: down sleeping bags, all-weather tents, rain gear, backpacking stoves, silk underwear, wool socks, gloves, ski hats, first aid supplies, bear canisters, dehydrated food, headlamps, water filters, water bladders, sun screen. They also thought hard about their mental health on this long trek, and added chocolate, journals, New York Times crossword puzzles, a very skinny paperback or two. The night before they set out on the trail, they got on the scale with their loaded packs, then went through them one last time, eliminating anything they possibly could.

Mike and I hiked with them for the first long week, and as we bade them goodbye at Muir Ranch, they drew still more items from their packs--things they'd thought they couldn't live with 50 miles ago--and thrust them into our hands: candy, walkie-talkies, a book, a camera, extra clothes. They'd reached the tipping point: the weight of their possessions was now a bigger burden than their anxious worries about mental and physical survival.

In this, they were certainly not alone. Muir Ranch is a resupply point for most hikers on the JMT, and here was the incontrovertible evidence that, in anticipation of the worst, almost everybody overpacks: twenty 5-gallon buckets filled with discarded food, candy bars, medicine, clothing, skinny paperbacks, all free for the taking should anyone be willing to add another ounce to the already daunting weight on his back.

When Jesus says, "Come to me, for my burden is easy and my yoke is light," he is revealing one of the deepest secrets of the spiritual life: that when we lay down our anxiety-generated burdens because we simply cannot bear to carry them any longer, we are set free to accomplish remarkable things. This is the secret the underlies the strict asceticism of the Desert Fathers and the various renunciations of the monastic life: self-absorbed anxiety gets in the way of genuine liberation. Yet ironically enough, we've been taught in our time to allay that anxiety by adding to, rather than eliminating, our burden of unnecessary possessions.

We watched them saddle up, a short string of human mules who would rack up a 33,000 feet of climbing and descending before they reached their goal. I sadly suspected that sometime along the way, there would be other things they'd wish they'd left behind--but with nobody to carry them out of the mountains, they'd be stuck bearing up under the extraneous and the unnecessary.

Just like me, no matter how much I long to be entirely free of worry. Instead, the slow pushing back of anxiety is a daily thing--lots of prayer, and one foot after the other.

1 comment:

carden said...

I could meditate on every sentence. Just beautiful, Paula.